Learning to let go of the reins

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Governors involved in education action zones have largely failed to hand over their powers as expected, writes Anat Arkin

EDUCATION action zones, once hailed as a testbed for running the education service, have turned out less revolutionary than some had hoped and others feared.

Teachers' terms and conditions in most zone schools have remained unchanged while private sector companies, though willing to put money into the zones, have shown little interest in running them. Governors, too, have seen their role subject to subtle shifts rather than sweeping change.

When zones were first proposed, the Department for Education and Employment suggested that they might become federations of co-operating schools, with governing bodies ceding some or all of their powers to the bodies running the zones. However, it was left up to the governing bodies of individual schools to decide whether or not their school should become part of a zone and, if it did, how they would work with the zone forum.

Most, if not all, the governing bodies in the first 25 zones decided to hold on to their duties and powers, and it seems likely that governors in the second wave of zones, announced last November, will do the same. The main objection to a hand-over of powers was that at the end of the three-to-five-year lifetime of the zones, participating schools would no longer have governors with experience in appointing headteachers or making other key decisions.

There were also worries about the legal implications of the DFEE's suggested model. The National Governors Council received legal advice that, as the law stood, a governing body could give up its powers but not its responsibilities.

"For example, if you had circumstances where the school's devolved budget and the power to deal with it and spend it was ceded to the EAZ forum and the school went into deficit, the governors would be responsible because it's still the budget for the school," says Gordon Hewlett, a vice-chairman of the National Governors Council, who was involved in an unsuccessful bid to set up an EAZ in Essex.

While governors have not formally given up their powers, influence in the zones seems to be shifting away from the governing bodies of individual schools.

"Decisions are made by a centralised group which is made up of governors, headteachers and whoever in the local authority is running the EAZ, and these decisions have an effect on schools," says Margaret Jones of the Information forSchool and College Governors. "Whether that is good or bad depends on the quality of the people concerned and what you think about democracy."

The Sheffield zone provides one example of this movement of power. In the early days, the local governors' association campaigned for a forum that would support governors and act as a consultative body, instead of running the whole show.

"That was born out of extreme frustration that in the first six to nine months, consultation with governors was absolutely minimal," says Peter McKenzie, secretary of the Sheffield Association of School Governing Bodies and chair of governors at Tinsley nursery infant school.

Governing bodies of the schools in the zone agreed to hold on to their powers, and they remain responsible for appointing staff and deciding how the extra resources, provided by the zone, are used in their schools. They are also represented on the zone forum by a seven-strong governors' group, which regularly consults governors from all 21 zone schools. That model has worked well, according to Mr McKenzie.

"But we all feel that the business of the zone is being driven from elsewhere," he says.

The headteachers' group, which was initially chosen by the education authority to lead the zone forum, remains firmly in the driving seat, he says.

Other zones have developed models for pooling some decision-making powers. Last September the Newham zone in east London, for example, divided its 18 primary and nursery schools into three clusters, each managed by a team of six headteachers, supported by a full-time school development manager.

"It was very difficult to relate to 17 other schools, so working in a smaller group of six schools has definitely had benefits," says Ellen Kemp, chair of the Newham governors' association.

"It's brought the zone closer into the classroom and made it feel less remote." As well as sharing resources and good practice, the clusters are developing common policies in some areas and looking at sharing appointments across schools and providing joint in-service training.

"They are planning a lot of joint activities so to that extent they are pooling decision-making," says Ian Harrison, director of education for Newham council and secretary of the local authority zone network.

"As the schools are finding it more and more useful to do things together, it could also become useful to carry out some of their governance functions together," he says.

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